In his first spring practice at Georgia Tech, new defensive coordinator Nate Woody had a couple of key players out with injury (safeties A.J. Gray and Jalen Johnson). The defensive line personnel isn’t quite exactly what he wants. And he could use a few more linebackers. But he expressed his pleasure over what he had overseen in 14 practices with the Yellow Jackets.
“Outstanding,” Woody said Wednesday after a light workout leading to Friday’s annual spring game at Bobby Dodd Stadium. “Guys worked really hard. They’re hungry. As a coach, that’s what you want.”
Hired from Appalachian State following Ted Roof’s up-and-down five-year run directing Tech’s defense, Woody had a few objectives for spring practice. One was to establish a two-deep depth chart, though he was careful to clarify that he hasn’t chosen starters. (The players on the two-deep can compete for starting jobs in the preseason.) Another was to teach the base defense against an offense with the quarterback under center, and another was to get a good feel for his players’ strengths and weaknesses. There was one mission at the core of his objectives, fundamentals.
“I told the guys (Wednesday),” Woody said. “I said, ‘I don’t know if you know how much better you’re getting just playing with your pads out and your shoulders square and keeping your legs and things like that.’ All the fundamentals are what you win with. Schemes are easy to draw up, but the guys that are really good at getting off blocks and really good at tackling – that’s where you win football games.”
Linebacker Brant Mitchell felt the emphasis from the start.
“I feel like I’ve progressed a lot,” he said. “From the first day, I had to fix my stance from last year. It’s gotten a little sloppy over the years. That was one of the things that (inside linebackers coach Andy McCollum) wanted to focus on with the linebacking group, getting our feet right. I think for me, that’s definitely something that I’ve really focused on and I’ve tried to correct.”
The change in scheme from Roof’s 4-2-5 to Woody’s 3-4 is indeed a central part of the shift. However, mastering the techniques to defeat blocks and tackle in space also will be important, as the Jackets often struggled in those facets.
“I guess if you get the best players, then maybe that might make it a little easier, but if you get guys that are excited, you get guys that are motivated, there’s an awful lot you can do and do well,” Woody said.
Woody said he did teach “a couple of different fronts, as far as our base.” He has worked players at different positions to see who fits best where. He has developed a depth chart.
“I don’t have starters,” he said. “Identifying the guys, the two-deep, is the most important thing to me. So once we get a two-deep and they come back in fall camp, now they can battle for the starting positions.”
He said the defensive line’s body types and skillsets are a little different than what he typically plays, as defensive linemen in his 3-4 have to be a little quicker and faster. At linebacker, he’s looking for players with flexibility in their hips, the ability to visually process quickly and quickness either going forward and backward (outside linebackers) or laterally (inside linebackers).
He has two outside linebackers he likes in Victor Alexander and Jaquan Henderson. The latter he has dubbed “Sonic Man.”
“He can go,” Woody said of Henderson. “And he’s got some flexibility in his hips where he can bend some coming off the edge.”
He is in search of a difference-making nose tackle. Chris Martin, Kyle Cerge-Henderson, Brentavious Glanton and Brandon Adams are among those working at a position he considers critical.
“We’ve got some bodies that are working hard and have a chance to get there, but, still, we’re in that fundamental phase, still teaching those fundamentals to where those guys can be at a difference level than where they’re at now,” Woody said.
Coach Paul Johnson did make one notable observation Monday about the defense.
“I think they’re playing faster than they’ve played, which is a good thing,” he said.
At the top of Johnson’s wish list for his defense is to play with speed, unencumbered by having to think through the scheme. If the defense is indeed playing faster, it’s a step in the right direction.
“You want them to buy in, and if you go through all spring and they’re not buying in, you’ve got an uphill battle,” Woody said. “When guys are excited, then teaching techniques, it becomes more fun, a little bit easier to do.”